1 Helping students to understand unknown English vocabulary in lessons

Lessons in secondary English textbooks can be difficult for many students. One of the reasons for this is that they contain a lot of words and phrases that students don’t know. As a teacher, your role is to help your students understand these words without making them feel discouraged.

Activity 1: Introducing unknown words

This is an activity for you to do on your own or with a colleague.

Read this paragraph from ‘A Visit to Cambridge’ (a chapter from the NCERT Class VIII textbook Honeydew):

Cambridge was my metaphor for England, and it was strange that when I left it had become altogether something else, because I had met Stephen Hawking there. It was on a walking tour through Cambridge that the guide mentioned Stephen Hawking, ‘poor man, who is quite disabled now, though he is a worthy successor to Issac Newton, whose Chair he has at the university.’ And I started, because I had quite forgotten that this most brilliant and completely paralysed astrophysicist, the author of A Brief History of Time, one of the biggest bestsellers ever, lived here.

Now answer the questions below. If you can, discuss them with a colleague:

  • Do you think that this Class VIII text would be easy for your secondary English students to read?
  • Which words do you think your students may not understand? Underline them or make a note of them in your notebook.
  • How could you help your students to understand these words and this passage?

This passage might be quite difficult for some secondary English students to read, as it includes some difficult vocabulary and complicated grammatical structures. Depending on your students’ levels, some students will know the word ‘disabled’ while others won’t. Some might not understand the phrase ‘worthy successor’ or ‘completely paralysed’.

A simple way to help your students come to understand unknown words is to translate them into your home language. This can be useful, but there are also some disadvantages to translating:

  • If you translate all the words in a passage, it will take a lot of time. Some students will get bored and lose interest in the text you are reading.
  • Translating a piece of writing word-for-word doesn’t allow students to learn English phrases and groups of words that usually occur together.
  • Translating something into home language helps students to understand what new vocabulary words mean, but it doesn’t always help them to remember those words and use them in their own speaking and writing.
  • If students always rely on you to translate words, they will not develop strategies for understanding words when they are reading or listening to English by themselves.

In Activity 2 you will look at how you can help your students deal with new vocabulary in their lessons. This technique will help your students to understand the readings in the textbook and develop strategies for learning new vocabulary. They will also help students to become more independent, so that they will be able to learn by themselves outside the classroom or in their future lives.

Activity 2: Helping your students to understand unknown vocabulary in a lesson

This is an activity for you to try in your classroom. It helps students to guess the meaning of new vocabulary in a text that they are reading. It also helps them decide which words they should spend more time actively learning. You can use this activity with any lesson, and with students from any class or any ability as they can choose and learn different words.

  1. Choose a lesson from your textbook that contains vocabulary that you think your students don’t know. It could be the next lesson you will teach, including prose and poems. If the lesson is long, choose a few paragraphs or verses from it.
  2. Ask your students to read the lesson. They can read silently or aloud.
  3. While your students are reading, write a table like Table 1 on the blackboard. When they have finished, ask them to copy it into their notebooks.

Table 1 Blank table for unknown vocabulary.

Words you don’t know but you can guess Words you don’t know and you can’t guess

  1. Before asking your students to do this activity on their own, ask the class for an example of a word for each column and fill it in. This way you can make sure that they understand what they need to do.
  2. Tell the students to note down words in the relevant columns. They should do this activity individually . Set a time limit for this (such as ten minutes) or ask for a maximum number of words (such as ten).
  3. When the time is up, ask the students to work with a partner and compare their answers in the first column. They should tell each other how they guessed the meaning.
  4. After a few minutes, stop the discussion . Now ask different pairs to share with the class the words they wrote in the first column and how they guessed the meaning. They can do this in their home language.
  5. Now ask students to read out the words that they couldn’t guess from the second column. Write these on the board and help them practise the pronunciation of these words by saying the words out loud and asking the class to repeat after you. Instead of providing the meaning or translation of these words, try to help your students guess the meaning.
  6. You can help them guess by asking questions like:
  7. Tell your students to choose ten words that they think are the most useful, and to learn them. You may want them to learn some additional specific words from the lesson. Write these additional words on the board, practise saying them with the class and discuss their meaning before telling students to add them to the list of words to learn.

Pause for thought

Here are some questions for you to think about after trying this activity. If possible, discuss these questions with a colleague.

  • Were your students able to guess many of the words? Which words did they find difficult to guess?
  • How can you help them to guess these words ? Think about what you will do to help them in future lessons.
  • Which words did your students choose to learn? Do you agree that they are useful?

Students will get better at guessing the meanings of unknown words with practice. You should:

  • encourage them to share how they guessed the meanings so that they can build up strategies
  • help them to make connections between new vocabulary and words that they already know
  • help them to recognise root words, prefixes and suffixes that help them to guess meanings (see Kinsella et al., undated).

It can also be useful to discuss what make words ‘useful’ with your class. Some words may be useful for exams, while others may be related to a topic or a subject that they are interested in.

You can find more ideas about how to help students guess the meaning of words from the context later in this unit. There are also additional vocabulary learning activities in Resource 1. Resource 2 includes examples of language that will help you do this kind of activity.

Case Study 1: Sunreet experiences a new way of understanding unknown words from a lesson in a textbook

Sunreet is a Class VIII student at a government upper primary school. He finds English difficult, and can’t understand many of the words in a lesson. His teacher recently used a new approach and he found that it helped him.

I missed a lot of classes in primary school and I find the English lessons in Class VIII difficult – and many of my classmates do too. My teacher tries her best to help us by reading the lessons aloud and translating them. This does help me to understand the lesson, but I don’t really remember many of the new words from the lesson.

Recently our teacher did something different in our English class. We had to read a lesson about an English scientist, Stephen Hawking [see Resource 3]. The teacher told us about him and then she asked us to read the first four paragraphs of the lesson silently. I have to say that I didn’t understand very much of the lesson when I read it. Then she asked us some questions about the lesson. I listened to the answers and learnt that the writer was a disabled person from India. So that was what ‘disabled’ meant!

Our teacher told us to write down words that we didn’t know and could guess, and words that we didn’t know and couldn’t guess. There were a lot of words that I didn’t know, like ‘metaphor’, ‘strange’ and ‘altogether’ – and I couldn’t guess very many. Then she told us to share our words in small groups, to see if we could help each other with the meanings. I felt a little embarrassed, because I had so many words, but my classmate helped me to understand some of them. And one of my friends showed me how he managed to guess the meaning of the word ‘bestseller’. He told me that the word described a book called A Brief History of Time, so it had to be a word related to the topic of books; and he realised that the word ‘seller’ came from the verb ‘to sell’. That made sense to me. I’d never really tried to guess a meaning of a word before.

After this, our teacher asked if there were any words that we didn’t know, and she explained them to us. She used lots of different ways to explain the words. For example, she tore a piece of paper into small bits to show us the meaning of the word ‘tear’. Then she told us to write down a list of ten words from the lesson to learn at home before the next class. I took them home and asked my older brother to help me. He’s in Class X and he tested me on the words. Next class, I could remember a lot of these words – especially ‘disabled’, ‘bestseller’ and ‘tear’ – and I felt proud.

What you can learn in this unit

2 Using different techniques to help students understand and learn new words